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Britain's Black Community and the Great War
By Stephen Bourne
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Stephen Bourne
All rights reserved.
LIONEL TURPIN: A LAD IN A SOLDIER'S COAT
When Britain joined the First World War on 4 August 1914, no one could have been more loyal to his king and country than the Guyanese merchant seaman Lionel Turpin. His son, Jackie, recalled in Battling Jack: You Gotta Fight Back (2005):
He felt British. He was descended from slaves taken from West Africa but English was his first language. His schoolbooks were written by British people; he lived under British law; he was brought up to admire British poets and British musicians and British scientists and British politicians and British nobility. His allegiance was to King George V, to his Mother Country and to British people all over the world. When Britain declared war on Germany he felt included.
Lionel Fitzherbert Turpin was born in 1896 in Georgetown, British Guiana, the only colony in South America owned by the British crown. He is described by Caryl Phillips in Foreigners (2007) as a young man who 'enjoyed a traditional British schooling in the sugar-rich colony on the north-east coast of South America, but the young lad had a yearning to see the world.' There was a rumour that he left home at the age of 16 because of a falling out with his father. He was still young when he found his way to Britain as a merchant seaman. Jackie said: 'It's likely he worked his passage as a stoker or summat because he couldn't afford to pay his ticket [...] he might have come straight to England then, or he might have tasted the world a little bit as a sailor beforehand.'
According to his army service records, Rifleman Turpin A202638 was just 19 years and 5 months old when he enlisted in August 1915. He gave his address as Collingwood, North Shields. By then he had left the sea and was working as a labourer. For the question 'Are you a British subject?' he replied 'Yes.' Lionel signed up at the York Depot of the York and Lancaster Regiment for the duration of the war. He named his father, John Turpin, as his next of kin. He was then a master carpenter with the city works of 291 Thomas Street, Georgetown, British Guinea (sic).
Nobody thought the war was gonna last very long, did they? We thought we'd knock out the Germans easy. 'Over by Christmas', was what everybody said. Me dad was sent out in February 1916 with the No. 32 British Expeditionary Force to the Western Front in Europe. He participated in the BEF campaigns of 1916, 1917 and 1918. My dad was in the battles of the Somme, then. People have said that from time to time. Trench warfare. Hell on earth. It was a miracle anyone come through that. The Great War lasted for four years and two months and was a bloody free-for-all. They was only lads in soldier coats.
Lionel's army service ended on 3 February 1919 with two medals, two gas-burnt lungs and a shell wound in his back. Says Jackie: 'My dad had survived the worst battles the world had ever seen but a gas shell caught up with him in the last weeks of the war when he was fighting with the 2nd Battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps near Arras in northern France.' He returned to Britain for treatment at a hospital in Coventry but, says Caryl Phillips:
They did all they could to help him before discharging the West Indian to a convalescent home near Hill House in the nearby town of Warwick. Although it was clear to the doctors that the mild-mannered coloured soldier was never going to fully recover, Lionel Turpin was eventually allowed to leave the convalescent home and he attempted to find work locally. Lionel stood out in Warwick, for there were no other coloured people in the town, and he was regularly referred to as 'Sam', which was an abbreviation for the more pejorative 'Sambo'. He was equally exotic in nearby Leamington Spa, where the introverted West Indian veteran soon met a local [white] teenager named Beatrice Whitehouse. Beatrice came from a rough, but tight-knit, local working-class family, her father being known as a bare-knuckle prize-fighter.
Lionel and Beatrice were married at Warwick Register Office on 24 December 1921 and he worked as a master moulder at Bissel's Foundry. Jackie recalled:
Most people in those days wouldn't have rented a flat to a black man but an old lady offered me mum and dad a basement flat in Willes Road, Royal Leamington Spa, a couple of miles from Warwick [...] The old lady said my dad was a good patriot. He had come over from one of our colonies to fight for Britain in the war and had got badly wounded doing it, and it was only right that he should have somewhere to live.
The Turpins had five children: Dick, Jackie, Joan, Kathy and Randolph but, as Jackie said: 'My father put up with his war wounds best as he could but his health deteriorated fast.' Says Caryl Phillips:
It was clear that the coloured veteran required full-time care and attention. He was eventually allocated a bed at the Ministry of Pensions Hospital in Birmingham, but on 6 March 1929, nine months after the birth of Randolph, Lionel Fitzherbert finally passed away due to war injuries he had suffered over a decade earlier. His funeral hearse was drawn by four black horses, with six soldiers as an escort.
Lionel was buried in the Brunswick Street Cemetery, Leamington Spa, and his funeral was paid for by the Leamington branch of the British Legion. Says Jackie: 'I think they should put my dad's name, and millions of others like him, on the Roll of Honour with those as lost their lives on the battlefields. All over the world, people died slow unofficial deaths in peacetime beds but it was the war that'd killed them.'10 Beatrice Turpin, a widow at 25, with five children to raise, was left with a widow's pension of less than thirty shillings a week, and whatever else she could earn cooking and cleaning for people. Jackie tells the story of how a middle-class woman asked if she could adopt him: 'I want to dress him up like a little Indian, in silk pantaloons and a turban, and train him to open the door when people come to the house.' Beatrice restrained herself from hitting the woman but said, 'My son's no slave, and you aren't gonna dress him like a slave. Now sod off!'
Lionel's youngest son Randolph Turpin later became a boxer and is now celebrated as Britain's first twentieth-century middleweight champion of the world. For further information see Scott A.G.M. Crawford, 'Randolph Turpin (1928-1966)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press).CHAPTER 2
Walter Tull is the most celebrated black British soldier of the First World War. Books and documentaries about his life have secured him a place in British history. However, the British Army was reluctant to recruit black soldiers. In the BBC documentary Walter Tull: Forgotten Hero (2008), his biographer, Phil Vasili, explained to the presenter, Nicholas Bailey:
They didn't want men of colour to join. Full stop. The usual ploy used by recruitment people was, if a black guy walked in, tell him to read the eye test from the far end of the room, use a bureaucratic procedure to fail him. But they couldn't do it with Walter. When he turned up he was a known man. This was a guy who had played football for Spurs, Northampton, his face appeared on cigarette cards, in newspapers. It was difficult to fail him on the medical because he's a fit footballer.
Walter was born in Folkestone, Kent, in 1888 to a Barbadian father called Daniel Tull, who worked as a carpenter and joiner, and a white British mother, Alice Elizabeth Palmer. They married in 1880. Daniel's mother, Anna, had been born a slave in Barbados. Daniel had settled in Britain in 1876. Orphaned at the age of 9, Walter and his brother Edward, then aged 11, were placed in the National Children's Home orphanage in Bethnal Green, London. Edward was adopted by a Scottish family and went to live with them in Glasgow. He later qualified as a dentist. Walter served an apprenticeship as a printer, but it was as a footballer that he made his name. Transferring to Northampton Town in 1911, he played 111 matches for them. After the outbreak of the First World War, Walter volunteered for the army and was enlisted in one of the divisions of the Middlesex Regiment that was made up of footballers.
When Walter was recruited into the army in December 1914 he became the 55th member of the newly formed 17th (1st Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, popularly known as the 'Football Battalion'. This was the result of the Football Association and the War Office joining forces to tap into the game's popularity and using it to attract new recruits. Andrew Riddoch, author of When the Whistle Blows: The Story of the Footballers' Battalion in the Great War (2008), explains: 'Professional footballers would join [the army] and encourage club supporters to join up. Some of these men would have been real heroes of the game. So there was an attraction of serving alongside men who they turned up every week to watch.'
Walter was rapidly promoted to corporal and then lance-sergeant. He completed his basic training in November 1915 and the 1st Football Battalion boarded a ship at Folkestone and crossed the English Channel to war-torn France. At first, Walter faced weeks of inactivity and boredom. In a letter to his brother Edward, written in 1916, he described the weeks of waiting before being moved to the front as 'a monotonous life', saying 'most of the boys prefer the excitement of the trenches'. However, in later letters, he talked about the 'carnage' he witnessed on the front line in a war he had come to hate. It was a war in which Walter encountered men in search of glory being slaughtered in their thousands as the Kaiser's army made advances. On a single day in 1916 around 19,000 men who went into battle with him were killed.
As an NCO (non-commissioned officer) Walter went to the front line where he encountered a life of camaraderie and courage amongst much confusion and chaos. Says Chris McNab in The Pitkin Guide to Tommy: First World War Soldier (2012):
On the Western Front alone, winding its muddy track down through Belgium and France, this conflict would draw in 4 million British and British Empire soldiers, the vast majority of whom were volunteers in the 'New Armies' or straightforward conscripts, given frequently questionable training and then sent to war in mainland Europe. A total of 1.7 million of them would either lose their lives or suffer debilitating wounds.
In freezing and muddy trenches, Walter fought alongside his comrades in the Football Battalion, but this almost destroyed him. Half of the Football Battalion were killed in action. In April 1916, after six months in France, he was diagnosed with 'acute mania' (shell shock), removed from the front line, and hospitalised. Says Phil Vasili:
Tull had encountered many situations, legs unsteady, that entailed digging deep, drawing upon hidden reserves of strength: the death of his mother at 7, the death of his father at 9, the loss of Edward aged 11, the brutal hostility of the crowd at Bristol a few months after his League debut at Spurs as a 21-year-old. Succumbing to 'acute mania' was, perhaps, not the result of his inability to face the unprecedented horror of the front-line trenches but an accumulation of the emotional trauma he had witnessed and attempted to deal with during the previous nineteen years. And on this list of debits we have not included the tension brought about by the common, day-to-day racism, a fixture of life in the UK from which there was no escape.
In September 1916 Walter returned to action with the 23rd (2nd Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, which suffered heavy losses in the Battle of the Somme (which had begun on 1 July). In November that year he was recommended for officer training. After the Battle of the Somme the British Army was in need of men of officer material, and Walter fitted the bill. Says Phil Vasili: 'He then returned to Britain for officer training at Gailes in Ayrshire and on 10 May 1917 he was appointed to a commission in the special reserve of officers, before re-joining the 23rd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment as a Second Lieutenant.' In 1917 it was virtually impossible for a man of African descent to be commissioned an officer. In 1914 The Manual of Military Law stated that 'any negro or person of colour' who was not of 'pure European descent' could not become an army officer. Perhaps we will never know for certain which black soldier became the first to be granted a commission as an officer in the British Army during the First World War and yet, in addition to Walter, research has shown that there were other exceptions. These include the Jamaican-born George Edward Kingsley Bemand, though on his 1914 army application form he stated he was of 'pure European descent'. He became a second lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery in May 1915 and was sent to the front in August 1916. He was killed by a shell on Boxing Day 1916.
Historian Jeffrey Green has drawn attention to others, including another Jamaican, Lieutenant Reginald Collins. He took a ship to England and in London joined the 19th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. In France in 1916 his officers held him in high regard, and approved his application to be admitted to an Officer Cadet Unit, to train to be an officer in the wartime British Army. The forms were completed in May 1916, and on 18 May he left France to train in Oxford. Collins heard that a third Jamaican contingent was being organised for the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) (see Chapter 5), and requested to become an officer of it. This was recommended. His file WO 339/62717 (now at the National Archives in Kew) has a comment: 'not suitable to be an officer owing to his colour'. It is dated 11 September 1916. The following year he was appointed second lieutenant with the 6th battalion of the BWIR. He served with them, probably in Egypt and Palestine, and certainly in Italy. Jeffrey Green also acknowledges the neurologist professor J.S. Risien Russell. Originally from British Guiana, and of mixed race, he was a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1908 to 1918 and worked at the 3rd London General Hospital which was utilised for soldiers requiring special treatment during the First World War.
Walter Tull had special qualities that made him stand out from the crowd and he had demonstrated on many occasions that he could serve with distinction. He had been decorated with the 1914–15 Star, thus making it impossible not to promote him. He is acknowledged as the first black infantry officer in the history of the British Army. As Phil Vasili notes: 'Black soldiers of any rank were not desirable. Military chiefs of staff, with government approval, argued that white soldiers would not accept orders issued by men of colour and on no account should black soldiers serve on the front line.' But Walter's superiors defied government orders.
On the Italian front Walter showed extraordinary courage and leadership when he was ordered to lead a group of men across the fast-flowing river at Piave and attack the forward positions of German and Austrian troops. He led from the front and brought his men back without a single casualty. Consequently Walter was mentioned in dispatches by Major General Lawford, who was commanding the 41st Division, for his 'gallantry and coolness' at the Battle of Piave in Italy in January 1918. Lawford visited the battalion two days later to congratulate them officially and his citation for Walter survives in his family's archive:
I wish to place on record my appreciation of your gallantry and coolness. You were one of the first to cross the river prior to the raid on 1 & 2 Jan. 1918 & during the raid you took the covering party of the main body across and brought them back without a casualty in spite of heavy fire.
Phil Vasili says that Lawford's citation 'acquiesced in formally defying Army regulations which barred men of colour from "exercising any actual command or power".'
On 25 March 1918, during the Second Battle of the Somme, Walter Tull was killed while crossing no-man's-land near the hamlet of Favreuil, which is near Bapaume, France. He was 29. His men tried to recover his body, running into no-man's-land three times, but they were forced back by enemy fire, and his body was never recovered. Nicholas Bailey has described his character: 'From what I gathered, looking into his life, he was a quiet and unassuming man, fiercely intelligent, but physically imposing. He defied all the rules of his time. He never complained, he just let his deeds do the talking.'
Excerpted from Black Poppies by Stephen Bourne. Copyright © 2014 Stephen Bourne. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Black Britain 1555–1919: A Chronology,
Black Poppies Q & A,
Part I: The Armed Services,
1 Lionel Turpin: A Lad in a Soldier's Coat,
2 Walter Tull,
3 All the King's Men,
4 Norman Manley,
5 British West Indies Regiment,
6 A Jamaican Lad, Shot at Dawn,
7 A Black Tommy at the Somme,
8 Seaford Cemetery,
9 'Thou Shalt Not Kill',
10 William Robinson Clarke: A Wing and a Prayer,
Part II: The Home Front,
11 An African in Truro,
12 The Two Josephines,
13 Mabel Mercer,
14 Amanda and Avril,
Part III: The 1919 Race Riots,
15 Ernest Marke: 'We were just a scapegoat',
16 London's East End,
17 Butetown, Cardiff,
18 Liverpool and the Murder of Charles Wotten,
19 Black Britain, 1919,
Television programmes viewed for Black Poppies,
About the Author,